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Lai Ching-te wins Taiwan election with big parliamentary loss

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Picture: Lai Ching-te / X Lai Ching-te, right, known for extremely combative in his approach to the mainland Chinese government, is expected to further his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen’s legacy of undoing peaceful cross-Straits relations. In a divided mandate, Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party won the presidency in the island territory with less than half the votes while his party lost its parliamentary majority, the writer says

By Peoples Dispatch

The final results of the Taiwanese general elections, held on Saturday, January 13, have been declared and the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Lai Ching-te is set to be the next president of the self-proclaimed ‘Republic of China’.

The electoral victory nevertheless was tempered by a divided mandate. Even though Lai broke the nearly three-decade trend of the presidency swinging between the DPP and the Kuomintang (KMT), he did not command the majority of the popular votes.

Lai thus became the second president in the island territory’s history, after Chen Shui-bian in 2000, to win the presidency without a clear majority of votes polled. He polled a little over 40 percent of the votes, a decline of over 17 percent for the DPP compared to current president Tsai Ing-wen’s performance in 2020.

KMT, the largest opposition group, also did not see any improvements with its nominee Hou Yu-ih only securing close to 33.5 percent of the vote, less than the 38.6 percent that KMT’s 2020 candidate Han Kuo-yu had secured in 2020.

The election for the territory’s legislature, the 113-member Legislative Yuan, led to a divided mandate. The DPP lost the majority it had held since 2016, finishing second with 51 seats, while the KMT regained its position as the largest legislative party with 52 seats.

Along with the two pro-KMT independents elected (one from Maoli and one from among the Indigenous constituencies), the KMT-led Pan-Blue coalition now holds 54 seats in the legislature, giving it a plurality over others.

Taiwan ‘independence’ groups lose big, TPP gains

Meanwhile, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) emerged as a major third party with its leader Ko Wen-je securing 26.6 percent of the votes in the presidential election. In the Legislative Yuan, the TPP managed to win 8 of the 34 party-list seats and doubled its vote share by securing 22.1 percent of the votes.

Interestingly, parties advocating for Taiwanese Independence witnessed a collapse in their vote base. The Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP), which was the only alliance partner in the DPP-led Pan-Green Coalition, lost its lone party-list seat and secured less than 0.7 percent, compared to 3.2 percent it secured in 2020.

The independent New Power Party, which has been the most vocal advocate of Taiwanese independence among mainstream political parties and has co-operated with the Tsai Ing-wen government, lost more than two-thirds of its previous vote share and all three of its seats in the legislature.

Other smaller groups like the Green Party of the Pan-Green Coalition and the New Party and People First Party of the Pan-Blue Coalition also lost significant vote share, compared to their performance in the 2020 election. Much of these losses are reflected in the gains made by the TPP.

The 34 party-list seats are often the only way for smaller parties, without enough resources and organisational capabilities to contest constituency seats, to gain representation in the legislature.

The introduction of party-list seats in 2008 has often complicated elections with the rise of smaller third parties. This is evident in the disparity between the largely bipolar trends in local elections, which continue to have a plurality-based electoral system, and the more multipolar results in presidential and legislative elections over the past decade or so.

For instance, in the local elections held between November and December 2022, the KMT and its Pan-Blue Coalition secured an emphatic victory over the DPP and its partners, while the TPP was trailing as a distant third party with just 4.65 percent of the votes.

But on Saturday, the TPP managed to consolidate its base as a growing alternative to both the DPP and KMT, to emerge as the kingmaker in the upcoming Legislative Yuan.

Cross-Straits relations at a crossroads

The loss of the legislative majority will be significant as Lai prepares for his inauguration in May. Even though Lai can act independently of the legislature to appoint a premier and a cabinet, he will have to depend on lawmakers to pass spending bills or any legislation. This is especially significant when it comes to the DPP’s handling of relations across the Taiwan Straits.

Both the KMT and TPP led campaigns of maintaining peaceful relations with the mainland government in Beijing, even as they competed against each other. The DPP is likely to find itself being cornered if it chooses to continue its confrontational stand against China.

But Lai seems defiant of the obstacles before him. Even as he stated that he hoped for a return to “healthy and orderly” relations with the mainland, he still characterised his results as Taiwanese people having “successfully resisted efforts from external forces to influence this election”, continuing with his unsubstantiated claims of electoral interference from China.

Lai, known for being more combative in his opposition to the mainland government, is expected to further Tsai Ing-wen’s legacy when it comes to undoing peaceful cross-Straits relations while building closer military ties with the US.

Lai’s running mate and vice president-elect Hsiao Bi-khim is illustrative of what lies ahead when it comes to tensions. Hsiao, a former diplomat who led the de facto diplomatic mission of the island territory as the representative to the United States, has a long history of official ties with local and foreign separatist groups.

Hsiao was a prominent face of the now dissolved but still active New Tide faction within the DPP. The faction had pushed albeit unsuccessfully for the party to include Taiwanese independence as its official policy and advocated for a constitutional change to effectively shed Taiwan of its “Republic of China” identity.

She was seen as among the Taiwanese officials to orchestrate visits by major US officials, including former US House speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2022, and was one of the seven officials to be blacklisted and sanctioned as a secessionist by the mainland. Her tenure as Taiwan representative in the US, between July 2020 and November 2023, also saw extensive US arms sales to Taiwan, to the tune of US$ 10.2 billion.

Opting for Hsiao as the running mate made clear Lai’s intent when it came to the China question. But the mainland government is unfazed by the results.

In a statement released shortly after the results were declared, Chen Binhua, spokesperson of the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing, stated that the election results do not change the “shared aspiration of compatriots across the Taiwan Strait to forge closer ties, and will not impede the inevitable trend of China’s reunification”, the Xinhua news agency reported.

“Our stance on resolving the Taiwan question and realising national reunification remains consistent, and our determination is as firm as rock,” Chen said.

China, through its foreign ministry and its embassies, has nevertheless condemned the congratulatory messages to Lai by foreign ministers from Japan, the US, and the UK, hinting at reinforcing unofficial relations with the island government, arguing that it violates their own stated policy of adhering to a “One China” policy.

On the other hand, Taiwan continues to lose its last remaining diplomatic recognition. On Monday, January 15, the Pacific nation of Nauru announced that it will sever its ties with Taiwan and reestablish ties with the People’s Republic of China. The setback brings down the number of governments still recognising Taiwan as the official representative of China to 12.

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch